Over the past few years, rumors of "virtual reality" (VR) have begun to fire the public imagination. No longer the secret purview of military-industrial technologists, longhair computer hackers, and a small band of academic institutions, VR has been the subject of major articles in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal VR has also begun to penetrate the marketplace: it is a growth industry for the millennium The Next Big Thing The Wave of the Future The ultimate interactive entertainment experience. Sort of a cross between the home video game, an elaborate theme park fantasy ride and science fiction encounter therapy. You are there, sentient and mobile in an artificial place, the product of the best that digital technology has yet to offer.
Such high-profile, mass-market coverage has provided a common, if superficial, account of the VR experience. The central image is that of a "patron" of an alternative, computer-generated world, who dons an elaborate, high-tech getup. This consists of a binocular (and binaural) headset whose two tiny TV screens emanate a synthetic 3D environment and whose sensitivity to all head movements induces "realistic" shifts in perspective, as well as electronic "data gloves" (or even a "data suit") that allow one to feel or move imaginary objects in virtual space and permit tactile interaction with other telepresences (human, or electronically rendered) that are simultaneously "jacked into" the system.
While prototypes for elaborate VR gear have been developed, most notably through the work of the NASA Ames Research Center, Jaron Lanier's VPL (Virtual Programming Languages) Corporation, and the Cyberspace ProJect of Autodesk, Inc., such megabuck work toward experience simulation not only is still in its infancy but represents merely one manifestation (albeit the flashiest) of the burgeoning VR phenomenon. Some alternative definitions, as well as hard questions about the significance of VR, were among the topics touched upon at the First Annual Virtual Reality Conference convened in San Francisco last December by Meckler Corporation (which also publishes the quarterly Virtual Reality, edited by Sandra K. Helsel, and the book Virtual Reality: theory, practice and promise, edited by Helsel and Judith Paris Roth). Philosophers; information scientists; sociologists; architects; theoreticians of theater, education, and artificial intelligence; and designers representing young commercial firms and established academic institutions nationwide were invited to offer up their individual recipes for virtual representation. "Consensual" is a word that gets bandied about quite a bit in describing the multi-person creation of a virtual world, but an absence of clear consensus among the speakers in San Francisco, in their varied attempts to define the terminology, purposes, potentials, and tools of VR, was one of the conference's healthiest features.
If you suddenly wanted to make the planet three times larger, put a crystal cave in the middle with a giant goat bladder pulsing inside of that and tiny cities populating the goat bladder's surface and running between each of the cities were solid gold railways carrying tiny gerbils playing accordions - you could build that world instead of talking about it!
- Jaron Lanier(1)
A key problem in discussing VR is that one finds oneself talking almost entirely about potential, rather than actual, applications. Moreover, the possibilities are so vast that each imagined application engenders others. Not only military and commercial uses but medical, educational, psychotherapeutic . . . the list goes on and on. And if we can conceive of activity in a VR funhouse as tactile and kinetic, can the notion of "teledildonics" be far behind?(2)
Michael Spring, Assistant Professor in the Department of Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, made the most extensive and cogent attempt at a broad definition of VR in his talk "Models for Human-Computer Interaction. …